Inside St. Louis

Cunetto's House of Pasta
"People go where people are." - Vince Cunetto 1978

 An original watercolor of Cunetto's House of Pasta
y local artist Marilynne Bradley.

Cunetto's House of Pasta
"People go where people are." - Vince Cunetto 1978



This is a story about Cunetto’s House of Pasta…but before we get there join us if you will for some side excursions.

It’s an irrefutable fact that our fair city is noted for its well deserved reputation of primo Italian dining and we’ve held this honor since the early years of the last century.  If we could hop into an H. G. Wells inspired time machine we’d discover many long lost eating establishments such as Sala’s Under the Viaduct where the original entrance was on Kinsghighway before the bridge over the railroad tracks went up in the very late twenties and the front door was moved to Daggett. (It’s now Oliva, a place for private events). The Angelo Sala family who lived upstairs created many memorable items in their large two room restaurant including Mongol soup, a blend of bean and split pea, and the best St. Louis sandwich ever…the Sala Special. Somewhere in these past scribbling we promised the “Special” recipe - so as we wind our way to Cunetto’s, here ‘tis.

That memorable Special was a triple-decker sandwich that started with 3 pieces of white toast. Here’s how you can recreate it: On the bottom slice of toast place a generous portion of  perfectly lean, tender roast beef with just enough natural gravy on top to keep it moist. Slather the upper crust of the middle piece of toast with mayonnaise, cover it with chopped lettuce then top that with lean baked ham. Add more mayonnaise to the bottom of the top slice of toast, cut the concoction diagonally and serve with dill pickle slices. Pre-packaged beef or deli ham won’t do…don’t even bother. By the way Sala’s would marinade their whole hams with a mustard sauce and then  refrigerate them for 2-3 days before using. They also used a delicate Sauerbraten type sauce in which to marinade their large beef roasts for 3-4 days before serving.

The mysterious Beffa Brother’s Buffet at 2700 Olive can make a more than reasonable facsimile of this sandwich. Just ask Michael Beffa for the Johnny Rabbitt Sala Special. Beffa’s for the uninitiated is in the 2 story building at the Southwest corner of Beaumont and Olive a block west of Jefferson. You can park for free in the lot behind their building. Keep in mind that there’s not actually a sign on the building indicating the place is there, but it is. Beffa’s has been at that intersection since 1898 and it’s technically not an Italian eatery as the family is from Switzerland. Psst. Get the tapioca for dessert.

Hold on, hold on, the Cunetto’s tale is still to come, but first let’s jump in that time machine to stop off in the past at some fine Italian dining houses that included Joe Garavelli’s on De Baliviere and Di Giverville, Julius Re’s and Ferd and Ferd Baldetti, Jr’s Garavelli’s Buffet just east of the Empress theatre in the 3600 block of Olive, Ben Garavelli’s in the 3500 block of Olive, Ruggeri’s on Edward’s (now the Rose of The Hill banquet facility, Di Martino’s on Shaw (now Giovanni’s), Andreino’s on Wilson (now Dominic’s), Angelo’s on Shaw (now Charlie Gitto’s), Staebell’s on Southwest (now part of Harry’s), Giovannina’s on Shaw (now Guido’s), La Rocca’s on Lindell, Cassani’s  – and in the same spot - Galimberti’s on Daggett (now 5), Luigi’s on Watson Rd. (now Lo Russo’s), Caudera’s on Chippewa, Lou Carbone’s El Avion on Manchester, Detolli’s Spaghetti House on Jefferson, Amedeo Fiore’s Melrose (first on Sarah - it’s now the Melrose condos) Mascara’s on Chippewa and other locations, Odorizzi’s Spaghetti House on N. 8th, Oldani’s on Edwards (where toasted ravioli was created 63 years ago - now Mama Campisi’s), Pagliacci’s on S. Kingshighway and Manchester, Slay’s Caruso’s on Manchester and Brentwood, Rose’s on Franklin and Parente’s Italian Village at 6600 Chippewa and other locations (now Garavelli’s cafeteria). There are plenty more of these echos of the past and I could tell you a story about each of ‘em (maybe I’ll write a book), but Frank Cunetto’s getting antsy, so let’s get right to the topic of this column, and in case you forgot, it’s –

Cunetto’s House of Pasta
“People go where people are.”: Vince Cunetto 1978

You can follow the red, white and green fire (actually water) hydrants to many an Italian ristorante on The Hill and at each location you’d discover something worthy of your time and lucre,
but for our money the place we visit most is Cunetto’s. Occasionally we’re asked “How often do you go to Cunetto’s?” How often? For that I had to get out our old Burrough’s adding machine. Let’s see, Cunetto’s opened on October 14, 1974, a Saturday as I recall, and we were there that first night. So in the intervening nearly 36 years, which breaks down to 329 months or 1,857 weeks we calculate that between lunches and dinners we’ve passed through the doors at 5453 Magnolia approximately 1,290 times…and I’m not exaggerating. Those who’ve long frequented this pasta palace will recall that the front of the original dining room had large plate glass windows and a center door. Today framed mirrors have replaced the windows and the service stand is where the door once was. 

When asked for the best Italian dining spots in town we as a general rule give the nod to Cunetto’s as this is the place that always offers copious quantities of food at reasonable prices in a warm and inviting atmosphere with attentive and helpful servers and busers, friendly barkeeps and properly mixed drinks, plus in the evening you’ll be greeted genially by proprietor Frank Cunetto, son of Vince, who started there as a busboy when the doors opened, or if he’s not there, it’s usually his right hand man Jimmy “Big Boss Man” Bossi who’s toiled therein for a mere 32 years. For our money the overall best place on The Hill for all the forementioned, plus quality that has never varied, is Cunetto’s.  That consistent quality comes from the ever watchful eye and culinary skill of Charly SanFilippo who’s seldom spotted outside of his pristine and amazingly efficient kitchen which was designed with some guidance from above…well, almost; it was actually by the hand of Vince Bommarito the benevolent boniface of Tony’s which got its start in 1946 as Tony’s Spaghetti House.

In case you hadn’t heard, Vince and Joe Cunetto’s first business ventures were drug stores. Vince graduated in 1943 from the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. In ‘46 following two years in the Medical Corps he bought Excel’s drug store at 1926 Marconi. John Seiler was the original owner of the Excel Rexall store but when Vince took it over it was in the hands of another restaurant man in waiting, Angelo Oldani. Angelo continued operating the Excel’s ice-cream shop adjoining the drug-store until 1947 when he’d buy out his brother Johnny’s tavern at 5326 Shaw and soon change the name to Angelo’s On the Hill. But his real claim to fame was while helping out in the kitchen at his brother Louis’ place, Oldani’s Steak House at 2132 Edwards in 1947, where he accidentally dropped some ravioli in the deep-fryer and voila…or maybe mama mia is a more appropriate exclamation…toasted ravioli was born.   The Excel store incidentally was next to the beauty shop operated by his sisters Lily and Lee which was in turn next to their dad’s barber shop after he had moved from his original location. Joe graduated from the College of Pharmacy in ’50 after having spent time in the navy Medical Corps then at Wash U and SLU. After three years with Pfizer Labs he joined Vince at the Cunetto Pharmacy on Marconi and ultimately they’d close that location to concentrate on a larger store at 5400 Southwest. In ’62 they’d open another drug store on Big Bend in the old Orchard section of Webster Groves which was managed by Gene Arbini. Gene bought it from them in ’67. In 1963 they’d move the Southwest location to an even bigger spot across the street at 5417 Southwest in a space that had been the long-time home of the Tolschinsky Dry Goods store. The store was by the original Urzi’s Blue Ridge market. Vince and Joe used to say that long before they started their pharmacy education their mom and dad would send them to my grandfather’s pharmacy; the L. P. Elz Drug Store at 5131 Shaw for penny candy and their annual “spring tonic.”  Maybe it’s how they got their interest in being pill pushers.     

Chef Charly, who’s related to the Cunettos, actually started at the place two weeks before it opened having come from a brilliantly successful run in the kitchen of Rich & Charlie’s Trattoria which was on Oakland in what had for a time been K. O. Koverly’s. Rich is noted restaurateur Rich Ronzio whose name was immortalized on The Pasta House Company’s menu on the dish Rigatoni Ronzio. Charlie was the amazing master of cooking Charlie Mugavero who was killed, along with his wife, in a place crash while headed to a vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. At that point it was curtains for the Trattoria and since the Cunetto boys were going to give it a go, Charly, who’s affectionately nicknamed Flipper signed on.

When they sold their pharmacy building at 5417 Southwest to National supermarkets they decided to retire as independent drug store owners since the big chains were gobbling up the business. They hit on the pasta concept and location for their second foray in the restaurant business; the building they chose was just at the west end of the block in which their pharmacy was located, but there was no shortage of naysayers for sundry reasons.  Here are some of those reasons:

A number of years earlier, they, and the late Sam Antinora, had partnered with Charlie Gitto in a small pizza-pie parlor called Isle of Capri on Macklind. It didn’t make it. Some said that even though the Cunetto brothers regularly cooked small portions of delicious Italian eats on a rickety cast-iron stove and hot-plates in the back of their pharmacy, they were really druggists, having owned at different times 4 drug stores. Then there was the white elephant, some said jinxed building at the corner of Sublette and Magnolia. Prior to the Cunetto’s takeover of the circa 1937 property, which they initially rented, the only truly successful business there had been the Brass Key which was a night club/bar that started in the mid-1940s. It was owned by Charlie Re and Julius “Biggie” Garagnani. One of their regulars; a kid on the Cardinals named Stanley Frank Musial went in partnership with Biggie and they opened Stan Musial & Biggie’s Steak & Lobster House at 6435 Chippewa. Charlie stayed on with the Brass Key for a spell, but then the place went through a forgettable series of reincarnations of which off-hand the only one I recall was Rigoletto’s. It was also a fact that the Cunetto’s dad Giacchino “Jake” who was a barber by trade took a fast fling with a pasta place…but it fizzled so he went back to barbering at his shop, which was under their residence at Hereford and Shaw. But almost immediately upon opening they proved the crepe hangers wrong and then on Wednesday, January 29th 1975 when our pal and fellow gastronomist Joe Pollock wrote a robust rave about Cunetto’s titled “Pasta Panacea” a flood of diners flocked to the place and the tide has never turned.         

In the earliest months Cunetto’s served pizza, but stopped doing so to concentrate on pasta. Our suggestion for a pizza on The Hill is a new  spot called Rizzo’s Station Pizza. It’s owned by Debbie Rizzo, who just happened to be a waitress at Cunetto’s for years, having actually started there the second day they were open. The Station Pizza is in a rehabbed 1920s service station that once upon a long ago yesteryear was operated by Roy Russo whose descendants now operate the Del Pietro group of restaurants. This is a cute little, and I mean little, place with a couple of Texaco gas pumps outside. where for the most part all that’s served is home-made pizza (with mozzarella cheese) and a very nice salad. There are occasional special dishes but no alcoholic beverages.   

Cunetto’s is a casual place, not tank top casual, but one with a slightly relaxed code that won’t make you feel uncomfortable if you were to show up in suit and tie. Lots of folks make their way to Cunetto’s to celebrate events such as birthdays, and anniversaries; others come before baseball and hockey games, the Muny or the Fox. Cunetto’s welcomes larger groups and kids too, so there are times when the noise level gets kicked up a few notches, but since everyone is having a good time and the food’s so darn good just enjoy yourself even if you can’t carry on a truly quiet conversation.

Those in the know such as Jeanne Venn, concierge queen of the Chase Park-Plaza regularly directs guests seeking the real deal in an Italian meal to Cunetto’s, just as she sends those craving frozen custard to Ted Drewes. And in both scenarios the visitors to our town return with rave reviews. Cabbies in the know oft bring their Italian food seekers to Mr. Cunetto’s House of Pasta, but unlike the “old” days when Mickey Garagiola was a waiter at Ruggeri’s where they had their own cab-stand, an increasing number of taxi drivers are not only from out of town, but from out of the country, so they often don’t have a clue as to what’s good. Where’s Joe Costello’s Ace cabs when you need ‘em.     

As I write this little essay on good eats I’m thinking about what I’ll have when we visit Cunetto’s tonight. If it weren’t so hot I’d likely to start the feast with “pastafazool” which is in reality Pasta e Fagiole an aromatic bean and vegetable soup with ditalini. There are three additional soups on the dinner menu…all good, trust me. So for an appetizer I’ll likely stick with a small Insalata Cunetto, which really is enough for two. The creamy salad dressing recipe is a state secret…but I suspect a tiny amount of anchovies swim their way into it. One item that was in the works as an ingredient was an emulsifier called accacia, and Vince and Joe used their pharmaceutical acumen to get the recipe just right and just at that time the product was taken off the market.  Now back to my salad…they’ll normally sprinkle it with bacon bits…of which I always ask them to cease and desist; but the seasoned croutons add a cool crunchiness to the always crisp greens and colorful pimentos. And one of Cunetto’s frequently used ingredients is in there as well…tiny tidbits of green onions. Plus there are two other salad choices.

Then things really get tough as they have 65 other items from which to choose, and you guessed it, they’re all yummy, so you just need to decide what’ll suit your tummy. If it were up to me I’d go for an item long off the menu…but they’ll still prepare it. It’s maccaroncelli con salsa Milanese which is an “adventurous” sauce of fennel and smelts. The smelts reside in a can. This dish is an acquired taste and my wife likely won’t allow me to have it, so I’ll probably go for the Pasta di Alba which is either fettuccine or linguini blended with rich beef gravy, cream and Parmesan cheese. I suggest the fettuccine pasta. On the other hand I could be tempted to get Spaghetti con Polpette which is simply spaghetti with a thick meat sauce and meat balls. I’ll sub cappellini for the spaghetti. And if I may, I’d suggest getting the meat balls on a separate dish as you get so much it’s hard to manipulate when it’s all in one bowl. Oh, hopefully when you visit Cunetto’s you’ll either be really, really hungry or headed right home as you’ll likely have enough leftovers for two more meals.

Pasta prices ala Cunetto are easy on the pocketbook as 21 of the 28 pasta menu entries are under ten bucks with the highest, Linguini Tutto Mare, coming in at $13.00. At most places purveying pasta today you’d pay more and get less for any comparable entry on the Cunetto’s list of offerings, plus where else will you discover such quality and such an amazing array of the macaroni maker’s art? Tuttto Mare is their #1 selling dish as it has been since former pharmacist brothers Vince and Joe Cunetto swapped their mortar and pestle and medicine bottles for cooking cauldrons and liquor bottles. Linguine Tutto Mare is a redolent dish of linguini covered with a smooth seafood sauce crowded with clams, crab meat, shrimp and mushrooms. When the restaurant opened, this item, which was 1 of 22 pasta offerings was on the bill of fare for $4.50. 17 of the dishes were under $3.      

There’s a great deal more to tell you about Cunetto’s and we haven’t given you any history of La Montagna, which became known as the Blue Ridge and then The Hill, but we’ll do that in a second installment later in the month here in Inside St. Louis. We just rolled in after dinner and I had the capellini with meat sauce and meat balls. I ate even more than I really wanted and honestly my platter looked as if it hadn’t been touched, though I consumed one of the meat balls.

Keep in mind that you can make reservations for lunch, but not for dinner. If you want to avoid the night-time wait which on Friday and Saturday can seem to move at a glacial rate, come early, say at 4:45 to 5 or after 8:30. The bar is roomier than it once was, though it’ll get crowded with diners going in and out, but there are tables for waiting…but not for service outside, and a very pleasant area in which to cool your heels on the second floor where the infamous Tony G once held court in his what had been his office. Excuse me for now, I’m off for some of my leftovers In which I’ll mix in a can of anchovies. And if you like these salty little sea creatures consider ordering Linguini alla Pavorotti. It’s made with Luciano Pavorotti’s favorite sauce of anchovies, tomato, parley and red pepper. It’s a steal at $9.25. Did I mention they make what’s possibly the best hamburger in town at lunch? For something extra special ask for the Maker’s Mark hamburger which was created by John Nava of Certified Heating and Cooling. He’ll probably be at the bar having one.         

Written by: Ron (Johnny Rabbitt) Elz Host of Route 66 Saturday nights on News Radio 1120 KMOX &, May 2010.




Contact Information

Cunetto's House of Pasta
5453 Magnolia (at Southest Ave. at the corner of Sublette)
St. Louis, MO 63139
Phone: 314.781.1135

Hours of Operation for Food Service
Monday - Friday 11:00am - 2:00pm
Monday - Thursday 5:00pm - 10:00pm
Friday & Saturday 5:00pm - 11:00pm
Sunday - CLOSED

Click here for directions to the Cunetto's House of Pasta

General Information
Attire is “nice” casual.

No smoking please.

Major credit cards are welcome.

2 parking lots and plenty of near at hand street parking.

In addition to pastas there are 21 entrees, with 14 under $15
and all come with a large side order of pasta and a glass of wine (Talk about a deal).

Groups and kids are always welcome.

Reservations at lunch, but not at dinner.

They don’t deliver.

Take-out orders are very popular and well packaged.
No take-out on Saturday.

Private parties and catering.

Gift certificates.

Special needs access from the Sublette entrance.

All pasta cooked to order.

No outdoor dining.

Full bar and a kitchen bar for quicker service.
And they know how to mix drinks.

Very pleasant old world decor with well planned lighting. In other words you can read the menu and you won’t be running into people.

They’re on Facebook, if you can believe it.

You’ll need to ask the bus person for olive oil and parmesan cheese. The cheese is fresh every day.

If you possibly have room for dessert my suggestion
is Tiramisu or cannoli

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